The best military advice I know supposedly comes from a subordinate of Napoleon at a time that the French emperor was facing difficulties with his ill-fated military occupation of Egypt. "One can do anything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them." If only Gen. Jim Jones, the new National Security adviser, had the wisdom to give President-elect Barack Obama the same advice about the already planned escalation of forces in Afghanistan. But don't count on it. From all available evidence, the good general has already urged Obama to dig the United States even deeper into a far-off land that Alexander the Great, the British raj and 150,000 Soviets troops all came to know as "the graveyard of empires."
A former Marine Corps commandant and supreme allied commander of NATO, Jones is no simple war hawk. Far from it. He stood up against the way Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ran the war in Iraq and also opposed the surge that his longtime friend John McCain so passionately defended.
As Jones saw it, the real fight against al-Qaeda lay in Afghanistan, not Iraq, a position that Obama echoed throughout the election campaign.
So strongly did Jones feel, that he turned his back on heading US Central Command, the job now held by Gen. David Petraeus, and walked away from a chance to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As he told his Marine Corps buddy Gen. Peter Pace, who later took the job, Jones was not willing to be "the parrot on the secretary's shoulder."
After leaving the military, Jones co-chaired the blue-ribbon Afghanistan Study Group, which issued a report called "Revitalizing Our Efforts, Rethinking Our Strategies." The second edition of their report appeared in January 2008, when the Taliban-led insurgency was even less strong than it is now. But the basic approach will almost certainly guide Jones in his new White House post.
"The United States and the international community have tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan with too few military forces and insufficient economic aid, and without a clear and consistent comprehensive strategy to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul and to counter the combined challenges of Reconstituted Taliban and al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a runaway opium economy, and the stark poverty faced by most Afghans," wrote Jones and his co-chair, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering.
"We believe that success in Afghanistan remains a critical national security imperative for the United States and the international community."
That's quite a mouthful, I know, and the awkward syntax should alert readers to what a gargantuan task General Jones has in mind for the incoming administration.
In part, he worries that failure in Afghanistan would send a message to terrorist organizations that we and our allies can be defeated. It would. But, to use the new buzzword, let's be pragmatic. Wouldn't it be better to send that message at a time when a new American president offers the world new hope rather than after we follow the British and Soviets into a deadly Afghan quagmire?
The answer could determine the success of Obama's domestic dreams, and whether he will be a one-term president. Lest he actually believes in the possibility of winning even a half-baked victory, he should read Rudyard Kipling or call Mikhail Gorbachev.
The problem with Jones goes even further. The vision offered by his Afghanistan Study Group draws heavily on his experience with NATO, as one can see in this recently released letter to the Washington Post that he co-authored with Harlan Ullman, the civilian architect of the Pentagon's Rapid Dominance Strategy, or Shock and Awe.
"For the first time in its history, NATO is engaged in a ground war, not against a massive Soviet attack across the northern plains of Germany or in Iraq against insurgents and al Qaeda, but in Afghanistan," they wrote. "In committing the alliance to sustained ground combat operations in Afghanistan (unlike Kosovo in 1999), NATO has bet its future. If NATO fails, alliance cohesion will be at grave risk. A moribund or unraveled NATO will have profoundly negative geostrategic impact."
The words echo the rhetoric of the cold war, only now General Jones and so many other "foreign policy realists" see the big threat as radical Islam and other forces that threaten Western control of the oil and natural gas resources from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf into Central Asia. Jones views this threat not only as a 40-year marine, but also as a director of both Boeing and Chevron, and to counter it, he has helped Washington push the Europeans to increase their defense spending and join the United States in a multi-national military force to defend Western interests wherever threats appear.
Afghanistan is just the beginning, and many Europeans are already dragging their feet, seeing Washington's view of NATO as too close to their own imperial past. Just as with the occupation of Iraq, they don't think it will work any better this time. General Jones may hope that Obama's charm can win them over, but I doubt they'll drink the Kool-Aid.